After four weeks of out-of-conference games, the Conference USA baseball season will begin this weekend. Last year FIU made an incredible run to the tournament championship after the number one seed Rice went 0-2 in the tournament. The conference had three teams in FIU, Rice and FAU reach the NCAA Tournament, and the field could be full of even more Conference USA teams this year.

Conference USA had 36 players taken in the 2015 MLB Draft last June led by Western Kentucky’s Anderson Miller who was taken in the third round. Rice had the most with seven players taken. For a complete list of 2015 MLB Draft picks from Conference USA, go here.

The conference looks even more stacked this year with five teams picking up at least 10 wins in the first four weeks. Florida Atlantic is on top of the conference with a 13-2 record, and Southern Miss is right behind them at 13-4.

Rice started the season ranked but struggled out of the gate before taking 2-of-3 against 19th ranked East Carolina last weekend. Florida Atlantic has been ranked throughout the season in some polls, while Southern Miss has received several votes and in my opinion should be ranked based on their early season resume.

Here is a quick preview of each team as we get ready for conference play:

Charlotte:

The 49ers are 8-8 through their first 16 games with big wins over Kennesaw State and Georgia. Junior Logan Sherer returns after hitting .311 in 2015 with 33 runs, 6 home runs and 25 RBIs. This year he’s hitting .368 with 4 home runs and 17 RBIs and 18 runs scored in 68 at-bats.

Sophomore Brett Netzer is also back after making the Conference USA All-Freshman team last year by hitting .318. So far he’s following that up with a solid 2016 where he’s batting .344 in 61 at-bats. Freshman Drew Ober has exploded onto the scene leading the team in hitting with a .377 average in 53 at-bats.

The 49ers return one of their top starters from a year ago in junior Sean Geoghegan who went 6-5 with a 2.46 ERA in 87.2 innings with 58 strikeouts in 2015. Through four starts this year he has a 2.84 ERA in a team-high 25.1 innings with 14 strikeouts.

The Charlotte offense has been solid with a team average of .300, while putting up 5.75 runs per game, but the pitching staff has been beat up a little with a 4.26 ERA in 16 games.

Projected Finish: 12th

 

Florida International:

The Panthers made an incredible run to the Conference USA Championship last season as the 8 seed beating number one Rice in the first round and then scoring 15 runs in each of their next two games before beating sixth seeded UAB in the championship game.

FIU had five players taken in the MLB Draft last year, including first baseman Edwin Rios who was taken in the 6th round.

They’ve played a difficult out-of-conference schedule as they started the year against Ole Miss, and then also faced a ranked Missouri squad in a midweek game. They’ve played the most games in the conference so far with 19 through the weekend and two more scheduled this week.

Kolby Follis is having a breakout junior campaign hitting .424 in 59 at-bats with 10 stolen bases. Austin Rodriguez leads the team with 13 RBIs and boasts a .324 average in 68 at-bats. As a team he Panthers are hitting .315 and averaging 5.5 runs per game.

Junior pitcher Cody Crouse is the team’s leading returning starter. After going 5-6 last year with a 4.13 ERA in 89.1 innings with 54 strikeouts, he’s 1-1 in 5 games (4 starts) with a 2.84 ERA and 14 strkeouts in 19 innings pitched. He’s also the Panthers top draft prospect entering the season.

The pitching staff as a whole has been decent with a 4.08 ERA in 19 games with 150 strikeouts in 172 innings.

Projected Finish: 7th

 

Florida Atlantic:

The Owls have proven to be the best team in Conference USA so far this season with 13 wins, including two wins over SEC foe Mississippi State. They’ve won six of their last seven games and have now won seven straight weekend series.

FAU had the second most players in the conference drafted last year with Brendon Sanger leading the way after being taken in the fourth round.

CJ Chatham is the team’s best player and best draft prospect. He hit .335 a year ago with a conference-high 22 doubles, while hitting 3 home runs and 44 RBIs. This year the junior is hitting .397 with a team-high 15 runs scored. Junior Esteban Puerta is scorching hot to start the year hitting .429 with a team-high 3 home runs and 22 RBIs in 56 at-bats. Stephen Kerr and Christian Dicks have had somewhat slow starts to the season, but if they get hot this offense could be even more potent.

The offense as a whole is hitting .313 through 15 games, while averaging 7.1 runs per game.

Transfer sophomore Marc Stewart has led the Owls’ pitching staff through 4 starts with a 1.12 ERA in 24 innings with 10 strikeouts. Senior Brandon Rhodes returns to the rotation after winning four games a year ago and striking out 41 batters in 78.2 innings. Through 4 starts this year he’s 3-1 with a 2.39 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 26.1 innings. While David McKay’s 5.40 ERA is high, he leads the team with 23 strikeouts in 15 innings.

The staff as a whole has a 2.47 ERA in 15 games with 114 strikeouts in 135 innings.

Projected Finish: 1st

 

La Tech:

The Bulldogs have played the least amount of games so far as they’ve already had four games postponed or cancelled. However, they do have two of the more impressive wins so far this season as they took down a ranked Louisiana-Lafayette team and a ranked Arkansas team.

The Bulldogs had one player taken in the draft last year in starting pitcher Phil Maton.

Junior transfer Raphael Gladu has been huge for La Tech so far hitting .463 in 41 at-bats with 10 runs scored and a team-high 9 RBIs. Another junior transfer, Sean Ullrich, has given the La Tech offense a boost as he’s hitting .364 in 44 at-bats with a team-high 12 runs scored and 5 stolen bases.

Tyler Clancy and Phillip Diehl both return to the rotation this year. Last year Clancy was 6-6 with a 4.99 ERA in 14 starts, and this year he’s 3-1 with a 3.00 ERA in 4 starts with 18 strikeouts in 21 innings. Diehl only made 3 starts a year ago, but so far this season he’s 2-1 with a 1.23 ERA in 4 games (3 starts) with 20 strikeouts in 14.2 innings.

On offense they are averaging 6.75 runs per game through 12 games with a team batting average of .312. The pitching staff has been solid as well with a 3.72 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 104 innings pitched.

Projected Finish: 4th

 

Marshall:

The Herd started the year 1-5, but then won seven of their next eight. They were one of a few Conference USA teams that didn’t have anyone taken in the MLB Draft last year.

They return their top hitter from a year ago in Corey Bird who hit a team-high .307 and scored a team-high 34 runs for the Herd. So far this year he’s scored 12 times and leads the team with 9 stolen bases. Junior transfer Tommy Lane has been an absolute beast for Marshall this year leading the team in average (.356), home runs (5) and RBIs (17). He’s arguably been the best hitter in the conference to this point.

The offense has been decent with a team average of .249, while posting 5.9 runs per game. Their offensive success mainly comes from the fact that they’re averaging 5.9 walks per game.

In order to win games in Conference USA you have to be able to pitch, and so far the Herd has been unable to find a starter that can do that on a consistent basis. Last year their pitching staff finished the year with a 4.63 ERA, and this year they have a 4.60 ERA through 14 games.

Heston Van Fleet has been their best pitcher so far coming out of the bullpen with a 2.81 ERA in 16 innings with 13 strikeouts. JD Hammer leads the team with 22 strikeouts in 23.1 innings, but he holds an ERA of 6.56.

Projected Finish: 10th

 

Middle Tennessee State:

The Blue Raiders have been very impressive in the early going picking up 10 wins before conference play begins. They started the year with two impressive extra innings wins over Indiana. They also picked up two wins on the road against a very good South Alabama team, and did the same on the road against Kennesaw State this past weekend.

Last year the Blue Raiders won 30-plus games before losing to FIU in the semifinals of the Conference USA Tournament. They lost four players to the MLB Draft, including fifth round pick Ronnie Jebavy.

Junior transfer Riley Delgado has burst onto the scene for MTSU this year leading the team by a lot with a .431 average in 58 at-bats. Brad Jarreau returns after leading the team with 45 runs scored a year ago, while hitting .338. This year he’s hitting .266 with 8 RBIs and a team-high 3 stolen bases.

Tyler Troutt has been the team’s best starter so far this year with a 2.74 ERA in 4 starts with 15 strikeouts in 23 innings. Last year he posted a 4.64 ERA in 52.1 innings. Nate Hoffmann was the team’s best starter last year with a 3.61 ERA in 77.1 innings, but so far this year he’s struggled to the tune of a 6.16 ERA in four starts.

The offense is hitting .244 as a team and averaging 4.5 runs per game, while the pitching staff has a team ERA of 4.84. Neither of those stats are great, but this team has still found ways to win games. We’ll see if they can continue that trend as they get into conference play.

Projected Finish: 9th

 

Old Dominion:

The Monarchs started the season with a huge victory over top ranked NC State, which kicked off a very good out-of-conference performance as they picked up double-digit wins through the first four weeks.

The Monarchs had three players selected in the 2015 MLB Draft, including infielder P.J. Higgins who was taken in the 12th round.

Nick Walker returns to the middle of the ODU lineup after hitting .276 with 6 home runs and 33 RBIs a year ago. Connor Myers is also back after hitting .302 in 2015 with 32 runs scored, 28 RBIs and 20 stolen bases. Zach Rutherford is back at shortstop after batting .317 last season with 30 runs scored.

This year Myers is hitting .355 in 62 at-bats with 3 home runs, 15 runs scored and 10 RBIs, while Walker is right behind him hitting .353.

Adam Bainbridge is the team’s leading returning starter after going 4-2 last year with a 2.39 ERA in 67.2 innings pitched. This year he’s 1-0 in 4 starts with a 3.20 ERA in 19.2 innings. Sam Sinnen also returns to the rotation after going 6-3 in 2015 with a 2.84 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 66.2 innings. He’s been their best starter this year with a 0.84 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 21.1 innings.

On offense the Monarchs are hitting .246 as a team and averaging 5.1 runs per game, while the pitching staff has an ERA of 3.78 with 98 strikeouts in 140.1 innings.

Projected Finish: 6th

 

Rice:

The Owls have been the toast of the conference for two decades now, but other teams are starting to catch up. Rice began the season ranked in the top 25, but a difficult preseason schedule has led to them dropping out of the polls.

They started the season 3-5 after playing teams like Arizona, Dallas Baptist, Arkansas, TCU and UL Lafayette, but they bounced back by winning five of their next seven games, including a series win over a ranked East Carolina team. Despite their slow start, this will undoubtedly still be the team to beat in Conference USA.

As mentioned, Rice led the conference with seven players taken in the 2015 MLB Draft led by pitcher Jordan Stephens who was selected in the fifth round.

Dayne Wunderlick has come on in his junior year with a .295 average, a team-high 11 runs, 1 home run and 10 RBIs. Ford Proctor leads the offense with a .353 average in 51 at-bats. The offense has really yet to get going with a .249 average and a 4.1 runs per game average; although a lot of that could have to do with the competition they’ve played.

The pitching has always been what Rice is known for though. Starting pitcher Jon Duplantier is the top draft prospect in the entire conference and he has a 3.33 ERA in 4 starts with 32 strikeouts in 27 innings. Blake Fox is another top draft prospect with a 3.42 ERA in 4 starts with 22 strikeouts in 23.2 innings.

As a whole the pitching staff has a 3.68 ERA with 131 strikeouts in 132 innings. I expect those numbers to improve as they enter conference play.

Projected Finish: 2nd

 

Southern Miss:

The Golden Eagles have been one of the biggest surprise early on picking up 13 wins in their first 17 games, including wins over Michigan State and Auburn.

The Golden Eagles won 36 games a year ago and return a lot of talent from that team even though they lost three players to the MLB Draft.

Tim Lynch returns after hitting .313 last year with 9 home runs and 32 RBIs. So far this season he’s hitting .364 with 4 home runs and 18 RBIs as he looks to increase his draft stock. Dylan Burdeaux also comes back to the lineup after hitting .283 in 2015 with 4 home runs and 28 RBIs. In 67 at-bats this year he’s hitting .328 with 2 home runs and 11 RBIs. The offense as a whole is hitting .296 and putting up 6.9 runs per game.

The pitching staff has a 3.29 ERA and 139 strikeouts in 153 innings led by Cord Cockrell who is 3-0 with a 1.73 ERA in 4 starts with 20 strikeouts in 26 innings. Cody Livingston is lights out in the bullpen with a 1.08 ERA in 8.1 innings with 11 strikeouts.

This team has a legitimate chance to make a run at the regular season title.

Projected Finish: 3rd

 

UAB:

The players entered the year as the youngest team in Conference USA and it’s shown as they’ve struggled out of the game with just 6 wins, but they have played some quality competition with no cupcake games to date.

The Blazers had three players taken in the draft a year ago with Alex Luna selected in the 10th round.

Seniors Griffin Gum and Evan Peterson lead the offense through 15 games with averages of .286 and .283 respectively. The Blazers top draft prospect, Esteban Tresgallo, has yet to get it going as he holds a .237 average in 59 at-bats with just 1 home run and 4 RBIs. The offense as a whole has really cooled off with a .223 average on the season and a 4.1 runs per game average.

The pitching staff has been solid with a 3.32 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 130 innings, but they just haven’t gotten the run support they deserved and have been killed by errors from this young Blazers team. Ryan Ruggles holds a 3.15 ERA in 4 starts, while freshman Tanner Graham has a 3.68 ERA in 4 starts.

If the offense can get going, this team has a chance to sneak up on some people this year.

Projected Finish: 8th

 

UTSA:

The Road Runners started off the season on fire going 8-4 to start with wins over a ranked Houston team and UC Irvine, but then a sweep from Gonzaga last weekend humbled them a little before conference play.

UTSA had two players draft after last year with pitcher Brock Hartson going in the 21st round.

Skyler Valentine is having a breakout year hitting .322 in 59 at-bats with 13 runs, 2 home runs and 12 RBIs. Tyler Straub returns to the lineup after hitting .340 in 2015. So far this season he’s hitting .295 with 12 RBIs. Collectively the offense is hitting .281 and posting 5.9 runs per game.

The pitching has been beat up this year with a team ERA of 5.58. Aaron Burns is the team’s best returning starting after going 7-2 in 2015 with a 3.07 ERA, but so far this season he has a 5.56 ERA in 5 starts. Chance Kirby has been the most reliable starter so far with a 3.63 ERA in 5 games (4 starts).

Projected Finish: 11th

 

Western Kentucky:

The Hilltoppers are another team that has picked up double-digit wins through the preseason with wins over South Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.

WKU had two players taken in the draft last with Anderson Miller going in the 3rd round, which was the highest draft pick from the conference.

Danny Hudzina returns after hitting .327 a year ago with 39 runs, 9 home runs and 43 RBIs. This season he’s scorching hot hitting .469 in 64 at-bats with 18 runs scored. Kaleb Duckworth is also back after hitting .291 in 2015 with 5 home runs. He’s already belted 3 home runs this year, while hitting .407 with 16 RBIs.

The offense has been dominant early with a .310 average and 7.2 runs scored per game. The pitching has been solid with a 3.51 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 136 innings.

Austin King and Josh Barley return to the rotation in 2016. King is 1-0 with a 3.18 ERA in 4 starts with 19 strikeouts in 22.2 innings, while Bartley is 2-1 with a 3.94 ERA in 5 games (3 starts) with 17 strikeouts in 16 innings. Ryan Thurston is their other starter and he’s 2-0 with a 4.29 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 21 innings.

Projected Finish: 5th

 

The conference is becoming known as a strong mid-major conference for baseball with three teams making the NCAA Tournament a year ago, and at least three teams getting top 25 recognition already this season.

It’s going to be another very competitive season for baseball in Conference USA and I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.